Following an era of relaxed standards for issuing loans, lenders must be aware of a bankruptcy court’s ability to subordinate liens for equitable reasons. On May 13, 2009, in In re Yellowstone Mountain Club, the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Montana issued an order subordinating the secured lender’s $232 million claim below the (i) debtor-in-possession financing; (ii) administrative fees; and (iii) the unsecured claims. Section 510(c) of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes a bankruptcy court to subordinate a claim for equitable purposes, but it provides little insight into the reasons that would justify this harsh remedy. For non-insider claimants like the senior lender in In re Yellowstone, subordinating a claim is a drastic measure that bankruptcy courts will rarely utilize. But the lender’s conduct, in issuing a $375 million syndicated loan with little financial due diligence and far in excess of the borrower’s ability to repay, “shocked the conscience of the Court.”
The lender issued a $375 million loan to the Yellowstone Club, a high end development company controlled by Timothy Blixseth through Blixseth Group, Inc., the majority shareholder. The lender marketed its product as the equivalent of a home-equity loan, and Blixseth treated it that way, taking large distributions from Yellowstone that he never repaid. Although Yellowstone was unable to repay its debt, the lender benefited because it had obtained a $7.5 million fee for closing the loan and had unloaded portions of the loan to the other syndicates. The bankruptcy court, finding the practices tantamount to predatory lending, determined that equity dictated subordinating the loan.
Lenders should be mindful of a court’s power to subordinate claims, even if it is rarely used. Although the bankruptcy court withdrew this opinion because the parties had reached a settlement on the issue, this case is still instructive for creditors. It illustrates that bankruptcy courts can use their own discretion to determine whether a lender has indulged in unsavory lending practices, a troubling thought to secured creditors everywhere. Nonetheless, equitable subordination for non-insiders is rare (it almost never happens), and lenders that employ responsible lending practices are unlikely to ever encounter this problem.